04/08/2013 7:15 PM ET
Pena proving he can thrive off bench in NL
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
MIAMI -- There was not much fanfare when the Braves signed Ramiro Pena in December. But while filling in for injured shortstop Andrelton Simmons on Saturday and Sunday, Pena delivered a couple of crucial hits and provided a glimpse of the value he can provide as a bench player in the National League.
"Pena does a [heck of a] job," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I watched him play in Spring Training and I told him -- and it's not his fault -- 'You've missed a lot of money by playing in the American League.' He's so valuable in the National League game."
While serving as a backup infielder for the Yankees during portions of the past four seasons, Pena did not get frequent chances to pinch-hit or enter a game as a defensive replacement during a double-switch. With the designated hitter in place, these opportunities are few and far between for AL bench players.
As a switch-hitter, Pena will likely get plenty of pinch-hit opportunities with the Braves. In addition, his solid glove will put him in position to play any of the infield positions in a late-inning double-switch situation.
Or as he showed while playing shortstop this past weekend, Pena has the ability to deliver in a starting role. His two-run, eighth-inning single fueled the comeback in Saturday's win over the Cubs. He delivered another two-run single that gave the Braves a lead they would not relinquish in Sunday's victory.
Simmons returns, but B.J. leads off again
MIAMI -- Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was happy to put Andrelton Simmons back in his lineup for Monday night's game against the Marlins. But Gonzalez opted to keep B.J. Upton in the leadoff role that Simmons had manned before missing Saturday and Sunday's games with a sore right thumb.
Gonzalez was encouraged to see Upton break out of his early-season skid by recording three hits and drawing three walks in the nine plate appearances he tallied while hitting leadoff on Saturday and Sunday.
But along with wanting to stick with the hot hand at the top of his lineup, the manager's decision was also influenced by the fact Evan Gattis is expected to fill the cleanup spot on a regular basis while Freddie Freeman spends the next two weeks on the disabled list with a strained right oblique muscle.
Gattis made his second straight start at catcher on Monday, and he is expected to get more playing time than Gerald Laird over the next couple of weeks.
"I did a couple lineups and it just seems right when you put B.J. there, especially now that Freeman is not in the middle of the lineup," Gonzalez said. "If you lead Simmons off, the bottom third of that lineup gets clogged up a little bit. Then you've got to either hit Chris Johnson or [Juan] Francisco [eighth]."
Gonzalez moved Simmons to the eighth spot with the hope that his ability to consistently put the ball in play would help turn the lineup over.
"I like hitting leadoff," Simmons said. "But it's not an issue."
Simmons said that his thumb, which he hurt sliding into second base on Friday night, also will not be an issue. He will wear a wrap on his hand to keep the thumb stable until it completely heals.
Upton has hit .249 with a .331 on-base percentage in 167 career games in the leadoff spot. After going hitless in his first 16 at-bats of this season, he entered Monday having reached safely with a hit or a walk in five of his last six plate appearances.
While there was some discussion about entering the season with Upton in the leadoff spot, Simmons was essentially given the role by default. The slick-fielding shortstop hit .289 with a .335 on-base percentage while compiling just 182 plate appearances after making his Major League debut last year.
"It's fine," Simmons said. "Whatever works. If we keep winning, that's fine with me."
Johnson likely to man first with Freeman out
MIAMI -- When he learned Freddie Freeman would miss at least the next two weeks with a strained right oblique muscle, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez asked club officials about how much Evan Gattis had played first base in the Minor League level.
But it appears Chris Johnson will serve as the everyday first baseman while Freeman is sidelined. While Johnson draws this assignment, Juan Francisco will play third base on an everyday basis.
"I think Chris Johnson will serve that purpose and serve it well," Gonzalez said.
Gattis made his second straight start at catcher on Monday, and he is expected to play the position more frequently than Gerald Laird over the next couple a weeks. Six-time All-Star catcher Brian McCann is expected to be sidelined until at least the latter part of this month while recovering from right shoulder surgery.
If pressed into an emergency situation, Gonzalez said either of his two current catchers -- Gattis or Laird -- could play first base. But he said Laird would likely be the first option.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.